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Lessons from the road: shaping a strategy for Maine schools

Posted June 24, 2011, at 9:04 p.m.

Earlier this month, I wrapped up a tour of Maine schools that took me hundreds of miles across our state, through the doors of more than two dozen schools and into conversation with countless teachers, school board members, administrators, parents and students.

It was all part of the listening tour I pledged to undertake in my first 100 days as commissioner of education to meet educators in the field, familiarize myself with the issues and solicit input as we begin work on a strategic plan for the Department of Education.

Common themes emerged as I traveled from Kittery to Calais to Caribou, with stops in almost two dozen towns in between.

I heard widespread concern about the toll a stubborn economic downturn has taken on school budgets, how shrinking pools of revenue have led our schools to cut industrial arts, music, foreign languages and other valuable academic programs that engage our students.

I heard a clear desire to move beyond a relentless focus on standardized testing, a desire to emphasize subjects other than simply the math and language arts that show up on the New England Common Assessment Program tests and the SAT.

I heard teachers and administrators at all levels and school board members in every region tell me they want a singular guiding vision for education in Maine that narrows the list of reform initiatives the Department of Education pursues at one time and focuses our energy on implementing them well.

I heard enthusiasm from teachers and administrators who are eager to start using the Common Core state standards in their classrooms.

That’s because the new set of academic expectations — which have been embraced by more than 40 states to date — are clear, rigorous and will have staying power. They’ll also herald a new, powerful, dynamic, computer-based testing tool — currently being developed by a consortium of states, including Maine — that will finally offer teachers useful and timely data about their students’ academic performance that can inform instruction decisions.

I also heard — and witnessed — excitement about the prospect of holding our students to those high standards through a standards-based model of education that will allow students to learn at their own pace, choose the way they learn and move on only once they’ve demonstrated mastery of the standards.

A handful of Maine schools have taken major steps toward adopting that genuinely standards-based model of education, and they’re beginning to show results.

I heard from countless educators during the listening tour who want to learn from those schools that have already charted the course of reform, who have figured out what to do and what not to do when going about the business of transformation.

Over the next few months, I plan to review all of the feedback I received on the road and use it as we develop a strategic plan that offers an agreed-upon vision for what we’d like our schools to look like in the years ahead, and helps us build a Department of Education that can partner with schools to get us there.

The next time I hit the road, that can be the starting point for our conversation.

Stephen L. Bowen is Maine’s commissioner of education.

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